Dubai was never high on my bucket list. If I’m completely honest, apart from when I was in transit in the city’s airport and in dire need of fresh air and a decent meal, I’d rarely given the city a second thought. So when Fi—easily the most cultured of my friends—declared she was swapping her London life for a few years’ desert-side in Dubai, I was perplexed. Maybe there is more to the city than glitz and glamour? I decided to investigate. Next time I was due a stopover in Dubai International, I made sure I saw more than just the airport McDonalds.
Just two days in the city and I discovered there was far more to Dubai than what meets the eye—and makes the headlines. Here’s how, through three lesser-known gems and one Aladdin-style adventure, you too can make the most of your stopover in the UAE and give this city the look-in it deserves.
Get it to the Creek
The Burj Khalifa may be the gem in modern-day Dubai’s crown (more on that here), but much of the city’s charm still lies in its traditional offerings. Bordering the Dubai Creek, the gold, spice and textile souks’ labyrinth of alleyways is a clear case in point. The original site where the Bani Yas tribe first settled, Dubai Creek and the sprawling Moorish-style marketplaces give visitors a peek into the region’s rich history and customs.
Top tip: While you may not find much in the way of bargains at the lavish gold souk, don’t lose hope. As just AED1 per ticket, a ride across Dubai Creek on a traditional abra is one of the most stunning journeys in the region—and easily the best-value attraction you’ll find.
Swap tourist traps for local hang-outs
For a MAINE meal to remember, head to this seafood brasserie
Courtesy of a thriving expat community, Dubai fare has upped its game as of late, and the results are definitely worth sampling on your stopover. Make like Dubai’s cool crowd and head to The MAINE Oyster Bar and Grill for dinner and a drink. Dishing out crowd-pleasers in a laidback, post-industrial setting, feasters will find MAINE in Downtown Dubai, its entrance tucked away in a dingy hotel garage.
Within walking distance of the Burj Khalifa, chic Japanese eatery Zuma makes the perfect follow-up to your tour up the tower. The tasty shareplates are legendary among locals, and the slick interiors featuring hand-carved granite counters, salvaged rusted-steel walls and an unusual bamboo sculpture aren’t too shabby either.
Head to The Scene for a taste of home and a good pint. Masterminded by renowned English chef Simon Rimmer, The Scene boasts just the right amount of British quirk and serves up the the best Sunday Roast in town. Need we say more?
For traditional eats, go straight to Downtown Dubai and don’t stop until you reach Leila. Dishing out mezze plates and slow-cooked meats spiced to perfection, Leila gets the nod from both locals and expats.
Surf ‘n’ turf at Kite Beach
In my book, the best mini-breaks all have one thing in common: the beach. Although I’m usually content with a dip, Kite Beach’s watersports proved too good to pass up. From windsurfing to paddle boarding, soap football and even paragliding, Kite Beach is just about as outdoorsy as this city gets. Considering the year-round sunshine, we’re okay with that. Lining the beach are a convoy of food trucks, armed and ready to sate the masses. Our favourite’s Salt, the first of the gourmet burger van gang to hit the scene.
Explore the Arabian Desert
It may be coveted by the masses, but Dubai desert safaris are legendary for good reason. The stark orange earth with sweeping sand dunes lie just outside the big smoke, and a myriad of tour options makes this an adventure possible even for those tight on time. On most Safari tours, trained guides driving 4×4 vehicles lead the way over the sand dunes, and through the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve—deep into the heart of the desert. Then, you’ll stop by a Bedouin-style campsite, where traditional dining, belly dancing and a camel ride awaits.
And all too soon, my stopover is done and dusted. To plan your own Dubai mini-break, complete with these four obscure activities and the city’s essentials (I’m getting to them next time), check out our website here.